Over 37 million Americans suffer from diabetes, representing nearly 10% of our country’s entire population. Dial in on the Black community, however, and those numbers become even starker. Black adults in the United States are nearly 60% more likely to have type 2 diabetes compared to White Americans—a disparity that has only been increasing over the past decades.
Diabetes is a cruel disease that requires continual checks of blood sugar levels and the ongoing purchase of insulin. It can steal away years of life, land sufferers in the hospital, and result in blindness, kidney disease, and even the loss of toes and feet. Why is diabetes in African Americans so much more common than in other American communities?
In this article, we’ll look at the reasons behind the high prevalence of diabetes in African Americans and what members of the Black community can do to lower their risk of diabetes or better manage the disease.
A Quick Refresher on Diabetes
With nearly one in 10 Americans suffering from diabetes, it’s likely you have a close family member or friend with the disease, or perhaps you even suffer from it yourself. Though diabetes is unfortunately common, many people don’t fully understand it.
It starts with the food you eat. Your body breaks down this food and turns it into sugar or glucose, which your body uses for fuel. In response to high glucose levels in your blood, your pancreas releases insulin, which unlocks your cells so they can use the glucose as energy.
Diabetes throws a wrench in this beautiful biological system. Individuals with diabetes either can’t make enough insulin or can’t use insulin effectively (depending on whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes). This results in glucose levels spiking in the bloodstream. Over time, high levels of blood sugar corrode organs and body systems. If left uncontrolled, diabetes can result in
- Kidney disease
- Heart disease
- Lower body amputations
Sadly, many Americans are currently suffering from uncontrolled diabetes or from prediabetes (a condition where blood sugar levels are above average). That’s because over 20% of people with diabetes don’t realize they have the disease, and more than 80% of people with prediabetes are unaware that they have the condition!
Think you might have diabetes? Common diabetes symptoms include
- A high level of thirst
- Significant hunger
- Dry skin
- Blurry vision
- Unexpected weight loss
- Frequent urination
- General fatigue
- Slow healing
Diabetes was the leading cause of over 80,000 deaths in the United States in 2017 and a contributing cause of over 270,000 deaths that same year. These numbers showcase how destructive the disease can be.
But why is the prevalence of diabetes in African Americans so high? Let’s dive into that important question.
Diabetes in African Americans
According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report, over 12% of African Americans suffer from diabetes compared to 11.8% of Hispanics, 9.5% of Asian Americans, and 7.4% of non-Hispanic Whites. The only groups that suffer higher rates of the disease are American Indians and Alaskan Natives, with a diabetes rate of 14.5%
These numbers matter. The American Diabetes Association found that diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019. It was also responsible for $237 billion in direct medical costs and $90 billion in lost productivity.
Diabetes steals away quality of life. It can increase the risk of major health complications and make it difficult for sufferers to keep their jobs or increase their earning power. Diabetes can even take years off your life. For individuals aged 50 years, those with diabetes had a life expectancy six years shorter than those without diabetes.
In other words, diabetes is taking productivity, economic empowerment, and even years away from the Black community. Why is this? Why is diabetes in African Americans so much more common than in almost any other racial or ethnic group?
Understanding the Prevalence of Diabetes in African Americans
In 2017, a study published in the JAMA medical journal collected data from over 4,000 participants and found that the chances of developing diabetes were far higher in Black adults than in White adults. Though this wasn’t exactly front-page news, the researchers went a step further and looked into the question of why the disparity existed. They discovered that the biggest reason behind the health disparity was “biological factors.”
These biological factors included body mass index (BMI), waist measurements, blood pressure, and lung function. Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, the lead researcher of the study, put it more bluntly, “Obesity is driving these differences,” she said.
The data bear out Dr. Carnethon’s observations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health found that African Americans were 1.3 times more likely to be obese compared to White Americans, with four out of five African American women considered overweight or obese.
Rates of obesity and diabetes don’t happen in a vacuum. Black and Brown communities often have less access to healthy foods and are more often located in “food deserts.” These communities also face many health disparities. Black communities may struggle to find quality care and to afford that care even when available.
How Black Americans Can Prevent and Manage Diabetes
Diabetes doesn’t have to be destiny. It is possible to effectively manage the disease, though it helps to have access to good health care and affordable insulin.
The best ways to manage diabetes are also the best ways to prevent diabetes. These include
- Regular exercise: Getting regular exercise, even just a daily walk, can lower the risk of obesity and helps the body better manage insulin.
- Healthy eating: You are what you eat. Healthy food can help you avoid obesity and feel great. Try to decrease the amount of processed foods you eat and instead consume a well-balanced diet of lean meats, vegetables, complex carbs, and fruits.
- Regular medical screenings: Some of the worst outcomes of diabetes happen because individuals don’t know they have the disease. Regular healthcare appointments can help you catch prediabetes before it turns into diabetes. At this stage, it may be possible to make lifestyle changes so that you never develop diabetes. You can also learn more about who is at risk of diabetes.
The Black community in America suffers from some of the highest rates of diabetes, which is both a product of obesity and health disparities in Black communities. As a society, we all have to do better to provide more economic support to Black and Brown communities and to make the health of all Americans a priority.
Individually, you can also fight diabetes by adopting healthy habits like eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and getting regular health checkups.
About The Author: Dr. Edward Salko is the board-certified physician who reviews lab tests provided by PERSONALABS™. He earned his Bachelor of Science in chemistry and pre-med from the University of Florida in Gainesville and his Doctor of Osteopathy Medicine in 1980 from Kansas City University School of Medicine.